Cairo, Illinois: “a grave uncheered by any gleam of promise”
“There’s not a lot of murderers and cutthroats in Southern Illinois. They are real people, congenial and hospitable. But instead of being like a lot of committees, fussing and arguing, calling each other names, they just shoot it out if it’s necessary.” – Will Rogers, in the Marion Daily Republican in 1926.
I recently became aware of a documentary, directed by Jacob Cartwright and Nick Jordan, about a town and a region that I am very familiar with. I grew up in Southern Illinois, though my extended family is from elsewhere. The short samples that can be found online make me think that it is a very honest and painful look at Cairo, (pronounced KAY-ro) and one that is truthful about the forces at work in the region. I am looking around to see if it is possible to get a copy so that I can watch the whole thing. Three clips from that film are below.
The earliest know inhabitants of what is now known as Southern Illinois, were the Mississippian Indians, who had arrived sometime in the thirteenth century BC. They seem to have disappeared sometime just as the old world was discovering the new. They left behind them earthen mounds near Cahokia, remains of what appears to have been at one time been the largest community of people in North America. It’s unclear whether the Illini Indians that greeted the first French settlers were of any relation to the Mississippians. The Shawnee, who were originally from the Ohio River Valley began moving into southern Illinois and the surrounding area during the sixteen hundreds. They came there when they were being driven out of their homes in Ohio, West Virginia and Western Pennsylvania by the Iroquois, who in turn were being pushed west by white settlement.
The first settlers that came were the French who did little more then trade with the natives and establish a few small outposts along the Mississippi river. Then the British, who took control the land and built some forts in order to hold on to their possessions. During the Revolutionary War, George Rogers Clark’s force attacked the British forts. After the war the area became the possession of the newly emerging American nation. The American settlers that came were largely from Appalachia and the south, many of them arriving by way of the Ohio river. They suffered severe hardships, deprivations, as well as suffering under the tremendous humidity that oppresses the region in the mid and late summer. River pirates operating from Cave-in-Rock preyed on tired and hungry travelers, often depriving them of all their goods, and sometimes their very lives, before they had even reached their new homes beyond the Wabash. Devastating tornados had to be accepted as a part of life. A series of three monstrous earthquakes struck the region during the winter of 1811-1812, changing the course of the Mississippi River.
The great Shawnee Chief, Tecumseh, passed through Southern Illinois in 1811, seeking, without a great deal of success, to gain support, from the indians there, for his confederation. The native American population was not as numerous in Southern Illinois as it was elsewhere in the country, and so there were not as many of the violent clashes between cultures. There were some though, such as the Wood River Massacre of 1814, the Mound City massacre of 1812, or the massacre of the McMahan family in 1855, but these incidents do not characterize how the local indians generally related to the settlers.
During the autumn and bitter cold winter of 1838 into 1839, eight or nine thousand Cherokee, the native american people that had perhaps done the most of any to embody the definition of being “civilized”, were, on the orders of President Andrew Jackson, driven from their homes in Georgia and forced to march west through Southern Illinois on their way to reservations in what is now Oklahoma. These harassed and inadequately clothed people were not able to simply pass through the area, but were forced to stop and wait for the winter ice to stop it’s flow down the Mississippi river. There was a great deal of sickness and death among the Cherokees during what was for some a very long wait.
The Northwest Ordinance, passed in 1787 by the Second Continental Congress, forbade slavery in the territory that included Southern Illinois, but that didn’t mean that the people of the region were personally opposed to it. A considerable number of settlers came to the southern counties of Illinois from southern states and brought with them their southern sympathies, and southern attitudes towards race and slavery, along with fears of how freeing black people might change their ways of life for the worse. When the Civil War came many Southern Illinoisans had divided loyalties. There was a question about whether this end of the state would support the union or not. In the end, most of those from the region who were of the age to fight did support the union. Units such as the 31st Regiment of the Illinois Volunteer Infantry, serving under General John A.Logan, consisted almost completely of young men from the southern counties of the state. Regiments such as this one served loyally throughout the war, though there were other men that fled south so that they could fight for the confederacy.
President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was especially unpopular among Southern Illinoisans who had been persuaded to join a war to only to save the union. When it became a war to end slavery many became enraged. Many of the soldiers who had enlisted now deserted and went home. When the army tried to arrest these deserters they were sometimes met with stiff resistance from Southern Illinois communities. In 1863, the 109th Illinois Volunteer Regiment made up of Southern Illinoisans which were then stationed in Holly Springs, Mississippi, was disarmed and put under guard after a great many of it’s soldiers deserted and the others were seen to be fraternizing with the enemy. It was said that the men had mutinied, refused to fight the enemy during a raid by confederates on Union held Holly Springs. Several officers were found guilty and dishonorably discharged. The remainder of the regiment were exonerated and released from arrest. The dishonorably discharged officers came home where most lived the rest of their lives as respected members of the community, a few even holding public office. The Emancipation Proclamation along with plummeting grain prices, worsening economic conditions, bank failures, and inability to trade with their neighbors to the south, and a basically pro-south, Copperhead sentiment combined to inflame Southern Illinois’ already deeply felt opposition against the war.
Race continued to be an issue long after the war and even up to today. The presence of the Klan, police intimidation and brutality, mutual suspicions, segregation, and lynchings were not unknown in the history of the region. Cairo, located at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, the southernmost town in the state of Illinois., was in a position to become prosperous and secure, but instead it ruined itself through the social rot of institutionalized racism and inept civic leadership. Instead of evolving into a better version of itself, Cairo remained as Dickens saw it many years ago. Charles Dickens mentioned Cairo in his book, American Notes, which described his impressions while traveling across the United States in 1842. Cairo he said was:
“a hotbed of disease, an ugly sepulcher, a grave uncheered by any gleam of promise: a place without one single quality, in earth or air or water, to commend it: such is this dismal Cairo.”